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CT group home caregivers rally ahead of Wednesday strike

Sylvia Grant works in a house where all of her clients at non-verbal. She described the importance of meeting them where they are, giving reminders, conversing in sign language, treating them like the adults that they are.

Group home and day program caregivers hold a press conference as 17,000+ members of SEIU 1199 New England prepare for an indefinite strike the next day. The state funded workers currently make $17 an hour, a wage that they blame for chronic staffing problems in the industry.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Sylvia Grant works in a house where all of her clients at non-verbal. She described the importance of meeting them where they are, giving reminders, conversing in sign language, treating them like the adults that they are.

Caregivers at six Connecticut agencies providing group home and day program services for people with developmental disabilities rallied in Hartford Tuesday, one day ahead of a strike for better pay and health benefits.

Agencies affected by the strike include Oak Hill, Mosaic, Whole Life, Network, Caring Community, and Alternative Services.

“Tragically, the workforce of 1,700 members that is striking tomorrow does that work at poverty-level wages, with entry-level wages of $17.25, many of them without affordable health insurance,” said SEIU 1199 New England President Rob Baril, outside the union’s offices in Hartford.

Baril said Gov. Ned Lamont and legislative leaders, in their final weeks of biennial budget talks, have an “affirmative obligation” to include $200 million in state funding for the workers in the budget, which would be matched dollar for dollar by the federal government.

Baril said the union budget demand would provide a pathway to $25 an hour wages and affordable health coverage for his members

Patricia Brycki, a caregiver at a Caring Community group home in Ledyard, said she works an average of 80 hours a week because of understaffing. She became the sole wage-earner in her household seven years ago when her husband suffered a brain injury.

“At $19 an hour, health insurance cost me $560 a month. How is that okay?” said Brycki, whose six clients require 24-hour-a-day care and supervision. “In 10 years, we have had one raise.”

“Nobody should work the way that we work, under the conditions that we work, and not be able to have a basic living,” Brycki said.

Sylvia Grant, a care provider at an Oak Hill group home in Hartford, said there have been times in her decades-long career she’s faced homelessness.

“I have to make a choice at times: Am I going to eat something today, or am I going to pay my medical bills?” Grant said. “This is not acceptable, by no means. I should not have to make a choice of my own life while I’m taking care of the lives of other people.”

Grant said her team is responsible for every aspect of needed care for the six women in her facility, including bathing them, feeding them, and dispensing medication. Some of her patients require care for tracheostomies, or surgical openings in the neck, and all are non-verbal.

“How many jobs out there, for $17 an hour, do that? I don’t think there’s any,” Grant said.

Amanda Bishop, caregiver at a Caring Community home in Norwich, said the relatively low wages contribute to an inability to fill vacancies. That understaffing, she said, leads to even more strain on her team.

“Why are we stuck at $17.25 an hour? Nobody wants to come and work, with the responsibility that we take on every day… when they can go somewhere else and have less responsibility,” Bishop. “We can’t just quit on our people. We’re here to take care of them. We love what we do.”

Addressing the governor directly, Bishop said: “Please put us in this budget. We’re going on strike tomorrow because we know that we deserve more than what you guys are giving us right now.”

Asked for comment on the strike and the current state of negotiations, Lamont’s office instead directed Connecticut Public to CT Department of Developmental Services spokesperson Kevin Bronson, who provided the same statement the agency provided when asked on May 17, the day after the strike was first called.

“While we cannot comment on the status of current contract negotiations between the union and private providers, we are hopeful this matter will be resolved soon,” Bronson said again Tuesday.

A spokesperson for House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Tuesday their office had nothing to add beyond the speaker’s comments on Thursday, when Ritter said, “Those workers deserve raises and we’re going to work very hard to accommodate them.”

The office of Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, did not return a request for comment on the strike.

Baril, the union president, declined to get into specifics of negotiations, but said he remains in communication with Lamont, Looney and Ritter.

“There is an enormous gulf between what is needed and what the elected leadership is currently committing to put in the budget,” Baril said. “I’m hopeful that they will hear the plea of this workforce.”

Pedro Zayas, a spokesperson for the union, said there would be pickets beginning at 6:00 a.m. Wednesday at nine facilities around the state, with a larger rally bringing together representatives from each facility on the grounds of the State Capitol at noon.

According to Oak Hill CEO Barry Simon, who supports the strike, his facility will require temporary workers – and the reassignment of some managers to direct client care – in order to keep patients cared for during the work stoppage.

“We're going to provide the care to the best of our ability,” Simon said, “but it’s a hard place to be.

Chris Polansky joined Connecticut Public in March 2023 as a general assignment and breaking news reporter based in Hartford. Previously, he’s worked at Utah Public Radio in Logan, Utah, as a general assignment reporter; Lehigh Valley Public Media in Bethlehem, Pa., as an anchor and producer for All Things Considered; and at Public Radio Tulsa in Tulsa, Okla., where he both reported and hosted Morning Edition.